“You’re as bad as Lexi.”
Luke rested his chin on Josh’s shoulder, slipped his arms around his husband’s waist, and pressed himself close. They both sighed, needing the contact more now that Gia wasn’t there. Touchy-feely would never describe them, but without her, it felt like they were missing a huge chunk of their heart. Sometimes, only a hug could fill the gap.
“She still watching from the schoolroom?” Josh asked, his voice low.
There was a rumble to it that told Luke he might have been crying, but he knew better than to ask or to make Josh turn around so he could see the tear-sore eyes for himself. Josh didn’t handle his emotions well. Growing up in a household of sisters had done that for him. It would have made more sense for him to understand girls more, but if anything, women truly came from Venus where he was concerned.
Of the two of them, when Gia had come along and messed up their plans for a surrogate, Luke had been surprised at the alacrity with which Josh had urged them to absorb her into their relationship. Luke considered himself bisexual, Josh less so. It had only confirmed that if a person could have two soulmates, then he and Gia were Josh’s. That was the only other reason Josh would need a woman in his life… if that woman was Gia.
His lips twitched at the thought, and he nuzzled his forehead against Josh’s jaw. It was scratchy, meaning he hadn’t shaved that morning—highly unusual. He grimaced. “She’ll be okay, Josh.”
“Undoubtedly she will,” came the harsh retort.
“Then why are you looking out of the window like you’re waiting for her to come back? You told her you’d call her when she could come home.”
“I remember what I told her.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “Well?”
“Why are you waiting for her to come home?”
“Because I hate myself for putting her through this, and I wish she was out running errands and on her way back here.”
Because he could sympathize—he wished the exact same thing—he changed the subject. “Come on, let’s have something to eat. Lexi’s already asking about dinner, and you know Gia stocked the freezer for us before she left.”
“She should have made us eat takeout. Eating shit for however long she’s away would be a fitting punishment for making her leave.”
“Less of the us,” Luke commented.
“I know you didn’t want her to go,” Josh told him stiffly.
“No, I didn’t, but neither did you. I appreciate the lengths you’re going to in order to protect me, Josh.”
His husband sighed, releasing some of the tension that had gathered in him moments before. “I’d do anything to protect you and Gia. Anything. Even hurting the other half of my soul.”
Luke pressed a kiss to Josh’s jaw. “She’s okay. She understands.”
“All that means is she’s a good woman. It doesn’t take away my guilt. She’s the mother of our child, and I’m sending her away, casting her out like she’s fucking Jezebel or something.”
“We always knew this would be tough, Josh.” Luke blew out a breath at how tough it was. “I wish one of us had married her instead to protect her. She’s our wife in our hearts but not on paper, not in the eyes of the law. I don’t like that. Not at all.”
Josh reached for Luke’s hand and squeezed. Their wedding rings clashed, scraping against the other in silent communication. “I wish that too, but I don’t regret what we did. I love you, Luke. In a perfect world, we’d be able to be together in the eyes of the law as we are in real life.
“Unfortunately, that’s not to be. So, we have to make the most of it. Once your appeal comes through, I’ll go back to my office job, and things will stay as quiet as they can until I retire.”
“You’re staying for the full term?”
Josh shrugged and turned back to stare down the drive. “I don’t know how to do anything else. Plus, I’m good at it. Not that I like admitting to being a glorified desk jockey in a uniform.”
“How the mighty fall,” Luke dared to tease and received a chuckle for his pains.
“I know. Tell me about it. It’s good money, though—great pension, fabulous medical for us.”
“Who are you trying to convince? Yourself or me?”
He shook his head. “It’s not like that.”
“No? What’s it like then?”
“I like helping my country.”
Luke frowned. “You think I’d have a problem with that? I helped out a little in my time as well, you know.”
“Of course I know, but things have gone to shit. What happened…the way it happened, I wouldn’t blame you for—”
“What? Who’s to blame? It isn’t America or the army who screwed me over. It’s a couple of corrupt higher-ups who used the rule book to their own advantage. I know that, Josh. I’m proud of the time I served, and truth be told, I’d still be a part of it all if I could. Things have changed, and I have a chance to do something I want now, but that doesn’t mean I begrudge you your choice.”
A sigh came from Josh. “You still want to do the tea rose thing? I thought you’d have grown out of it by now.”
“You know it’s always been at the back of my mind.”
“What? That I’d have changed? It’s always been my passion. You know that.”
Josh leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the pane of glass. A hiss escaped him, telling Luke it was chilly as fuck. Texas seemed to run hotter than the rest of the country, but it didn’t escape winter entirely, especially when these chills seemed to appear around spring. They had the heating on come the afternoon, but in the morning when the sun hit their house, especially its front, the AC was a temptation they worked hard to avoid.
“You deserve that,” he remarked easily, following Josh so that they retained the closeness of their earlier position despite the fact Josh had slumped forward.
“You never did like that dream of mine, and I never understood why.”
“It doesn’t take a brain surgeon, Luke.”
“Apparently it does, because I don’t get it.”
“It means you’ll be with your family more.”
“And that’s a problem?”
“Problem isn’t the word I’d use.”
“Ask—” He broke off, but Luke knew the words were burning on his tongue.
Luke also knew which words they were.
Josh grunted. “Yeah. I was going to say that. Only she’s not fucking here.” He knocked his head against the window again.
“Ask her what?”
“Ask her what you’re like when you come back from being with your father and brothers.”
Luke scowled, pulling away for real this time. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means you’re like a bear with a sore paw. You can’t decide whether to sulk or lash out. And you’re sarcastic as fuck. Always have been like that. Why do you think I hate going over there?”
“I thought it was because—”
“What? They made me uncomfortable? Being a faggot in a group of supremely hetero guys?” Josh snorted. “Do I look like I need my ego and my masculinity stroking? If anyone does, it’s the guys in your family. I bet they fuck their old ladies after they’re around us to make sure they didn’t catch our taint.”
Luke tried not to smile. He really did. Then he failed. When Josh turned his head to peer at him and saw the smile, they both chuckled, but Luke pulled away and took a seat in the armchair opposite Josh’s desk. “I always hated how blatant they are around you.”
“So careful not to touch my glass or silverware. Like they’ll catch something.” Josh rolled his eyes. “That doesn’t bother me. They’re a bunch of dicks, granted, but I hate the way you change around them.”
Luke went to cross his leg, to rest his ankle on his thigh, then hissed as pain ricocheted around his knee. He tensed, clenched his fist until it started to ache, and gradually relaxed as the pain below subsided.
“Forget again?” Josh asked, staring at him with concern.
He nodded. It was all he could do. After a while, he gritted out, “It’s hard to remember.”
“Of course it is. By the time you get used to it, you’ll be through rehab.”
“I doubt it. They said it’s never going to heal fully. Enough that I’ll walk without a limp but still fucked enough to have problems.”
“You see, Gia and I would know all this shit if you let us come with you once in a while.”
“I thought you read my reports.”
Josh sniffed. “I tried not to invade your privacy once you were back on US soil. I know how it pisses you off when I go behind your back on shit like that.”
“It didn’t stop you with this investigation into my appeal.”
“No, and aren’t you relieved it didn’t? Hell, my getting involved means we’re stopping a corrupt colonel from profiting from the war. That alone should make you grateful. Add to it the sick fuck was raping prisoners, and getting away with it, then disposing of them… Yeah, I’d say it’s a good job I know when to stick my nose in.”
Luke huffed. “Well, what do you want? A medal?”
“I probably fucking deserve one. All of this will be swept under the carpet. You’ll see. I bet the appeal doesn’t last more than a week. If that. You’ll be cleared, half of my findings will be redacted, and Colonel Harrison will find himself in a whole helluva lot of shit with the US Armed Forces and Amnesty International.”
Luke narrowed his eyes at his husband. “You told AI?”
“No.” Josh could have grown a halo, and Luke still wouldn’t have believed him.
“Don’t bullshit me.”
didn’t. Dana did.”
“Was that wise? Getting your PA involved?”
“Maybe, maybe not. She contacted them through a ghost server. I told you already, she’s a hacker. She did it so seamlessly I bet our best guys would find it hard to pinpoint it on her.”
“I hope you’re right. The last thing we need is to embroil her in our family shit.”
Josh shrugged. “I had to do something. There are many people who will want all of this, your case, to go away. As soon as is physically possible. If I hadn’t involved Jarvis and found the evidence to start a real investigation into the situation over there—well, you’re lucky you’re not in prison, Luke, just to keep you quiet.”
Luke froze, absorbing that horrendous fate. He’d spent too many days under arrest during his recuperation. The idea of being incarcerated, after being falsely accused…of serving time for crimes he didn’t commit, made him sick to his stomach. And he was already feeling pretty damn nauseated. What with Gia’s departure and the dull throb from his knee, never mind his goddamn shoulder… Adding to the sickness in his gut wasn’t wise. “I hate this.”
“You think I like it?” Josh shook his head. “It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard. It’s a conspiracy I never imagined our troops were capable of. But, that’s one thing about the human race… They can always surprise us.”
Exhaustion settled over Luke like a heavy blanket. He wished he could have gone with Gia, because it was a chance to escape from it all, but the appeal was for his damned benefit. It wasn’t like he could escape something he’d originally demanded. But now, with the shit settling and nasty revelations coming forth, he was tired. So goddamn tired of it all.
Running a hand through his hair, he felt the numerous scabs on his scalp. There were cuts and lesions that were still healing. Patches of hair that were only now growing back after being shaved so his head injuries could be tended to by the medics, and other patches that would never grow back thanks to scar tissue. He was a walking advert for small nicks and scars thanks to the last IED blast. Only a mother, or soul mates, would still think him handsome.
Some days, and he wasn’t a vain man, he hated looking in the mirror. Although his shrink at the VA assured him that was the PTSD talking. Like that was some reassurance.
“Hey, where did you go?”
Josh had knelt in front of him, his hands on Luke’s knees. That he’d managed to get this close without him reacting was telling. Firstly, no matter how fucked his head was, his body and his subconscious mind were relaxed with Josh. Safe.
Secondly, it spoke of how deep his internalizations were getting.
Another problem his shrink wanted to discuss. Never mind the flashbacks he’d been holding back from his doctor or the nightmares. God only knew what Dr. Ph.D. would do if Luke admitted to the full extent of mind fuckery he was currently enduring.
Gia would kill him for not sharing the whole truth with his counselor, but some things, well, a man had to hold them back. That kind of shit stuck on records. The last thing he needed was for that blight to follow him around for the rest of his life alongside the OTH dismissal.
He’d appealed the latter and was underplaying the PTSD diagnosis. No way in hell did he intend for this sorry cutoff to his career to affect the rest of his world for the rest of his life.
He stared down at Josh and reached for his hand. Again, they slid their left palms alongside each other and knotted their fingers, making their wedding bands clash. It was a physical reminder, one Josh picked up on too.
“Till death do us part,” Josh murmured softly. “Whatever shit sticks, no matter what, we deal with it together.”
Luke gulped back the emotion his husband’s words caused. “You say that now. What if the appeal doesn’t go according to plan?”
“You think it can go any other way after my CO has gotten himself involved? He wouldn’t risk his own reputation unless he had all his ducks in a line. I like the man, respect him even, but where I’m a uniform-wearing desk jockey, he’s a politician. He has the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his sights. This will help that cause, not detract from it.
“Regardless of any of that, if, God forbid, they had locked you up…you have to know Gia and I would have stood by you. Through thick and thin.”
“I know,” Luke whispered, ducking his head to avoid the sincerity in his husband’s eyes. “I know that, and it’s hard to believe in it sometimes, to realize how much people can love you.”
“It’s not hard. It’s frightening. It makes us vulnerable. Those people are our weaknesses, our Achilles’ heel, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, would you?”
He was slow to do it, but Luke shook his head. “No. I wouldn’t.” For a second, his jaw worked as he gathered the strength to say what needed to be said, words that felt like a lifetime had passed since he’d last made the declaration. And maybe it had. “I love you, Josh.”
“And I love you, Luke.” He squeezed his hand. “Everything will be all right. I promise.”
That was the thing about Josh. His promises were hard to come by, but once stated, it was like a blood oath. With his vow in mind, Luke nodded and finally felt able to relax a little.
For the first time in three months, he felt sure tonight he’d be nightmare free.
And Christ, did he need the rest.